As an HSP in the city, I learned to work with the noise and embrace it, like a swimmer floating along instead of fighting the current.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I found my move to the city profoundly disorienting. I grew up in a state with more cows than humans, a state crisscrossed with dirt roads and general stores and neighborly kindness. My arrival in Philadelphia confronted me with crowds and traffic and a surging cocktail of human emotions. My first few months there overwhelmed me, revealing just how sensitive I am.
But to my surprise, my next few months in the city showed me that the thoughtfulness and creativity that HSPs excel in can equip us to live sustainably in urban contexts. If you’re thinking about making the move yourself, here are six strategies that can help you thrive in the city as a highly sensitive person. (Or they can help you support an HSP friend or partner who’s moving to an urban location.)
6 Ways to Thrive in a City as an HSP
1. Tune toward the noise instead of away from it.
During my first six months in the city, I found myself constantly resentful of the noise outside my window. I invested in noise-canceling earbuds, a sound machine, and a work-from-home space farthest from the street. In a writers’ meeting, I complained about the toll the noise was taking on my creativity and ability to focus. My mentor surprised me by asking, “What if you tuned into the noise?”
I tried to re-explain all the reasons why the noise of the city was the problem. (We HSPs appreciate silence!) But the question haunted me. What if my constant fight against the noise of the city was part of the problem? Was my fight against the noise working against my gift of sensitivity, like a swimmer fighting against the current instead of floating with it?
I decided to follow this counterintuitive advice for a day, tuning into the noise and what it represented. The results were transformative. Behind the buzz of rush hour traffic, I heard the determination and commitment of nurses and art teachers and baristas. Behind the distracting hum from neighboring patios, I heard the joy of a nine-year-old practicing soccer and a college student throwing a party and a dog digging a hole. Behind the clutter and crush of rowhomes, I sensed the interconnected web of relationships that knit my neighborhood together.
Tuning into the city’s noise taught me to treat my sensitivity as an asset instead of a liability. I was able to engage my sensitivity proactively, and this humanized the noise of the city. And, best of all, when I brought my whole self to my new life in the city, I started to feel more at home there.
2. Understand your context — the more you do, the less overwhelmed you’ll feel.
As you tune into the noise and become more attentive, you will notice demographic trends and random acts of kindness and systemic injustice — all in your neighborhood. The deeper your understanding of your new city becomes, the less overwhelming it will feel.
As an HSP, you may find it helpful to spend time people-watching in a coffee shop, a grocery store, a gym, or a religious service. When you show up as a learner and ask questions, your HSP superpowers of observation will pick up on things others may miss.
In my case, understanding my context meant exploring the history of my neighborhood, a journey that started when my partner found an arrowhead while planting onions in our back garden. We discovered that our backyard was part of the ancestral home of the Lenape, whose influence lingers on the placement of highways and the names of streets and rivers around us. The discovery of the arrowhead rooted us in our neighborhood’s context, inviting us to honor the history and presence of the Lenape.
As an HSP, your attention to detail is a superpower that can help you honor the history of the spaces around you, knitting the past to the present as you find your home in a new place.
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3. Focus your empathy on a cause you love.
As an HSP, you may be more aware of systemic injustice, poverty, and pain in your city. You may notice areas of need that others have overlooked, or think of creative ways your neighborhood could solve them. Your HSP strengths of attention and empathy can be an incredible resource as you volunteer in your city.
However, knowing that you also have the potential to be overwhelmed or burned out, it’s helpful to focus your empathy on one or two issues. One way to narrow down your options is to pick something that you love and find a way to share it with others. By engaging in activism that connects to something you’re passionate about, you can volunteer in a way that feels more natural — and less overwhelming — to you as an HSP.
A highly sensitive person I know, who loves to cook, has chosen to volunteer at a food pantry, sharing her love of food with others. Another HSP, who loves nature, volunteers at trail clean-up days in her section of the city. And a sensitive soul who loves animals might walk dogs at their local Humane Society or establish a local pet food pantry. Focusing your empathy on something you love can be life-giving for both you and your city.
4. Make time for self-care — and don’t let anything get in the way.
Amidst the obvious presence of pain in the city, self-care can feel like a luxury. Yet just as a flight attendant reminds us to put on our own oxygen mask before we help others, so too, as HSPs, we have to maintain our own well-being before we can care for others sustainably. When I literally write “journaling” or “coffee” or “yoga” in my planner, I have prioritized the self-care that is so essential for me as an HSP.
You may find mindfulness practices — such as meditation, breathwork, yoga, prayer, or journaling — to be especially helpful. Creative activities, too — like painting, writing, or playing an instrument — can help us thoughtfully process our experiences in the city. We can also connect with other sensitive types in our city through workshops — perhaps a ballet class, memoir writing seminar, religious group, or terrarium design workshop. Once you start to seek, you shall find.
I’m always sad to turn down a festival or pop-up restaurant, but when I see it conflicts with the self-care time on my weekly calendar, it’s easier to stand up for my needs as an HSP. Although it’s necessary to set boundaries with others, it’s also key to set them for ourselves (and to stick to them!).
5. Name your biggest city stressors.
Some things in the city may actually be more stressful for you as an HSP. You may find it helpful to make a list of the things that feel like the toughest adjustment and process these with a therapist or friend. And remember: It’s okay if you experience a move to the city as more intense than your non-HSP friends or family members. Remind yourself that adjusting to change takes time — and that the mindfulness and creativity you bring to the table as an HSP will help you with that adjustment.
My nemesis, for example, is parallel parking. I’ve had to adjust and learned that it’s okay to park a little further from my destination if it means I have a larger spot to maneuver into. I also have no shame in calling my partner and asking him to help me fit into an extra-tight spot. Simply naming the fact that parallel parking causes extreme stress for me has helped me better cope with it. I can laugh about it on the good days, complain about it on the rough days, and be extra grateful for the kind neighbor who excused the dent on his hitch on the particularly dark days. (If you’re reading this, thank you, Tim!)
Another HSP I know finds grocery shopping overwhelming, so she’s chosen to travel farther during off-hours to a quieter one with larger aisles. You may find similar solutions helpful as you navigate your own city stressors. Even when you can’t make them disappear, you may find that just naming them, and making a few small changes, is enough to help you cope with them.
6. Create, and visit, restorative spaces.
As much as I now champion tuning into the noise, I still find it helpful to step away from the noise, too. Cultivating an indoor garden from some of my broken dishes (as well as with some thrift store finds) is one way I do this. The flourishing green plants inside are a refreshing contrast to the brick and cement outside my front door. They create a safe space where I can decompress and catch my breath.
Other city-dwelling HSPs I know have used lamps, books, and cozy blankets to create a library-like room or an HSP sanctuary. And others have used easels, paints, and artwork to create a workshop space. Whatever your decorating vibe, a comfortable space that feels like home will help you express your creativity and feel at peace.
Outdoor spaces are also invaluable for us as HSPs, as they offer a way to recharge away from the speed of the city. You may find it helpful to keep a list of local gardens, parks, museums, farmers’ markets, and other outdoor spaces in (or near) your city. If you’re still considering housing options, you may also find it helpful to prioritize outdoor space, like a rooftop deck or proximity to walking trails.
Thriving in the City
Let’s face it: The city has the potential to deplete an HSP’s resources. We face the pull to be constantly on the go, the drain on our empathy, and the chronic exhaustion of noise and people and pollution.
But on the flip side, our deep power of attunement as HSPs equips us to care for the city and ourselves in sustainable ways. Our mindfulness can be an incredible gift to our neighborhoods and neighbors. We can represent a slower pace of life, an invitation to self-care, and an opportunity to imagine a more holistic way of being. We can bring our mindfulness and creativity to the city, contributing to its flourishing.
We also have much to learn from the city — it invites us to tune into the lives and needs of others, and to care for the people and places around us. Cities are ever-changing and full of surprises, and that can awaken our creativity and resilience in unexpected ways.
So don’t be afraid, HSP, to tune into the city. I’d also love to know, in the comments below, what you’d add to my list!
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